The headiest part of being a young city reporter is the speed with which the job allows you to enter new worlds. One such world for the engaged reporter is that of the street and its poor, who become more vivid and human when he meets them as protagonists, witnesses, complainants, victims and voters. His notebooks fill up with quotes sharper and saltier than he would have ever imagined, but sadly, these encounters rarely translate into writing of long-lasting value. Few Indian media outlets would pay for their reporter to spend long hours, month after month, in Bara Tooti Chowk, mecca of itinerant labourers in Delhi’s Sadar Bazar, to get under the skin of Mohammed Ashraf, that eccentric Bihari daily-wage painter, full of possibilities, he once met on a story; and give space for the kind of writing that effort would produce. The reporter must for the most part mobilise his own resources, own space and own time; and how many would give their spare time to Ashraf and his friends?
Well, Aman Sethi did just that—over not one, not two, but five years (aided by a fellowship or two). And thank god he did, because the outcome is this wonderful book. Three things struck me after reading A Free Man in one engrossing, disturbing and uplifting sitting. The first is that Sethi gets the tone so very right. Glancing references to hangovers and whiskey breakfasts in the blurb might lead you to brace yourself for at least a few of the excesses of the “underbelly” genre (eg: showy descriptions of phantasmagorical nights on mean streets, sexed up characters, creeping voyeurism, and gallows humour gone mad) but don’t worry—they are refreshingly absent here. Sethi’s tale of the world of Ashraf, and of the lives unfolding around him on Bara Tooti Chowk, is told with restraint, gentle but potent irony, earthy humour, and understated empathy.
Secondly, there are clearly judgement calls the young reporter has to take as he gradually traverses the boundary between observer and participant—how involved should I get, how much financial help to offer in times of dire distress, or even, should I really be drinking uncured alcohol, even if “for research purposes only”. And yet, Sethi never appropriates the narrative for himself and his thoughts, in the manner of so many journalist-narrators. With his notebook, his recorder, and his endless questions, he is, yes, a character in the story, one whose struggles to make sense of the intriguing, frustrating puzzle that is Ashraf, trying to find the perfect balance between azaadi and kamai, and of other lives led on the street, compel us to read on; but it is their story, not his.
Thirdly, Sethi’s characters, migrant workers in the construction industry, are the people who literally build the ground beneath our feet, but for most of us, they are faceless. Who they are, what they do, and how they do it, are of little concern to us—unless the ground happens to collapse below us. That poses a challenge for reporter-writers striving to illuminate their lives for us. Well, Sethi’s book shows there’s only one way to meet that challenge: by writing well. This is heart-in-the-right-place writing that is not deadeningly earnest or drowned in ngo-speak; and it never forgets it has a story to tell (except perhaps in the somewhat draggy third section of the book, where detail on the state of public hospitals tends to overwhelm the story).
Deftly, Sethi uses the very unpredictability of his characters’ lives against the backdrop of a demolition-crazy Delhi to build a suspenseful tale, and by the end, as people die with dreams intact of reconnecting with long-lost families, a poignant one. The world of Bara Tooti is sharply, sometimes luminously, observed. Sethi’s prose draws us into details like the hierarchies of construction workers; the secret pockets in which workers store their valuables “making every mazdoor a walking album panelled with money, papers, phone numbers, and creased photocopies of ration cards”; the fast and furious loading and unloading of goods trains; the absurd workings of the Beggar Information System; and the rise and rise of Kalyani, the lone woman entrepreneur of Sadar.
A Free Man should be required reading for those who commission for the mainstream media. It might lead them to ask themselves, why don’t we have more such stuff on our pages?